Establishing Your Crisis Communication Strategy During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Employee layoffs. Tanking sales numbers. Clients backing out of contracts. And this one – not nearly as serious, yet still harmful, brand influencers forgetting to put a hold on their pre-scheduled posts of their delicious (yet impossible to get) brunch courtesy of their favorite hot-spot #ad.

The new normal?

We hope not, but it will likely last for some time. In the midst of a global pandemic and health crisis, businesses far and wide are experiencing tumultuous times and facing devastating decisions. Much like the airline industry, most businesses are not equipped to handle the significant reduction or sudden halt in sales. For many, their company’s future is just as unknown as COVID-19’s long-term effects.

So how are businesses going to stay afloat during this turbulent time? Many brands have pre-built and carefully curated crisis strategies that have already been put in place by a team of professionals. Some have never thought about that.

And that’s okay – if you identify with the latter, we’re here to help.  As you navigate the upcoming months — establishing your strategy will save time, headaches, and most importantly, jobs. We’re here to help you navigate how to get started and what needs to be addressed as you build out your company’s crisis plan for today — a plan which will ultimately determine your tomorrow.

COVID-19 and Its Impact on Brands

According to one prediction from McKinsey, this halt in purchase power will produce a full-blown recession by the end of Q2, with significant impact lasting through the end of Q3 (not to mention the lingering effects). China, the first to fall victim to the virus, is already facing its ramifications.  According to Bain & Co, China reported a 20% GDP decrease in the first two months of 2020 alone. As of March 23rd in the United States, we’re just starting to witness what seems to be the tip of the iceberg. We’re also fairly certain we don’t have to tell you how the stock market has been performing. 

From mom & pop shops to large corporations, from nail salons or barbershops to movie theater chains as we know it, the impact of this virus will, without a doubt, take out some of our favorite spots. It’s heartbreaking to anticipate the places we’ve frequented for years, and grown to love, will need to close their doors. But that’s no reason to lose hope. We will also witness the tenacity and innovation of many organizations who will pull through these tough times. Even the most location-dependent services such as gyms and museums are coming up with virtual alternatives such as personal training brought to your living room via video chat or impressive “walk-around tours”. We’re seeing dine-in restaurants convert to take-out masters, and conferences turn into virtual networking hubs. 

And then there are those that haven’t handled this crisis quite so well. Let’s take Tesla as an example. Although Musk recently bought ventilators from China and brought them to the U.S. to help with the crisis, he also tweeted this:

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Our connections at Tesla have mentioned that employees are still working in service centers, dealing with strangers daily (as of 3/24, when several states have implemented orders to stay home). This type of nonchalant response in light of a global pandemic? Not ideal. And while Tesla (a.k.a. Elon Musk) may feel “untouchable”, most businesses are not, and we may see a very different ending than we all imagined to some of our favorite brands.

The difference between those that make it and those that don’t? Savings and a crisis strategy.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of your crisis communication strategy, we would like to offer some advice: This is NOT the time to promote your business. Capitalizing off of a global pandemic is going to foster a great deal of mistrust amongst your customers. In this time of uncertainty, consumers crave that trust more than ever, and the way to earn it is through a strong communication strategy, not a last-ditch effort to earn a profit.

Why You Need a Crisis Communication Strategy (Now)

The benefits of a crisis communication plan are simple, yet incredibly impactful and can mean the difference between survival and bankruptcy. A strong strategy will help you:

  • Be ahead of the curve and have the ability to respond appropriately when a crisis hits. 
  • Communicate in ways that make your employees feel safer, your consumers feel heard, and your stakeholders feel confident. 
  • Control panic and mitigate fears by having a communication strategy in place for addressing employees.
  • Provide an execution framework that helps your leadership understand their responsibilities during a stressful time.
  • Direct communication or concerns to the appropriate department, maintaining efficiency.

Now some of you may be thinking “welp, too late now”, but you still have time. This crisis still has plenty of life to live, and communication to all stakeholders still needs to be navigated carefully. If you’re curious about if your current strategy or level of preparation is enough, please feel free to reach out to us for a free consultation.

How to Build Your Crisis Strategy

So where do you start?  We’ve come up with a guideline to help:

Brand Tone Audit and Adjustment 

Tone matters. And in a crisis, your tone must adjust to the scenario you’re in. Mistakes we see? Sounding too corporate. Lack of empathy about what others are going through. Sounding too confident (bordering arrogant). The list goes on.

Tone adjustment ensures that your brand sounds authentic and authoritative during a time of need, and we can’t stress enough how imperative this will be. Remember; when it comes to tone, you want to convey the following:

  • In control – address you know what’s going on and have a plan. 
  • Humble – understand that in a crisis, someone is always hurting.
  • Strong – you’ll make it through this crisis no matter what.
  • Agile – situations change, and your employees and shareholders will want to know you’re able to adjust at the drop of a hat.
  • Approachable – make sure your stakeholders know they can come to you with suggestions, worries, or fears.

One of our favorite examples? The Red Hen crisis. Although this example isn’t as serious as a global pandemic, it might lighten the mood. In this case, a humorous response was part of her strategy — and it worked. What could have been a sales-based nightmare was turned into a crisis case study overnight.

Current communication analysis and channel determination

Which channels are you using to address your employees and consumers? Are they the same, and should they be? Are you communicating in a way that’s effective, or are you sending a painfully long mass email telling everyone how you’re handling COVID-19? Determining these channels is incredibly important to ensure your communication is reaching the right audience. Most companies will use (say what most use so the reader knows where to start and what’s normal) 

Custom communication guidelines

Once you’ve done the above analysis, create guidelines based on your findings that your employees stick to. If you weren’t there to lead, would they have all of the information they need to communicate effectively and consistently?

Review of short and long-term goals

Have you reviewed and advised your short-term goals for your business since the crisis hit? If you didn’t have short term goals created, what does this reality look like for you now? Have you scaled back your sales expectations, or perhaps increased them for industries that are in high demand? Do these goals still align with your long term goals, and how can you adjust your operations to make it so?

Escalation Framework

A crisis hits, now how does it get addressed? Although the nature of a global pandemic is widespread and is communicated across the world, some crises happen to entry-level employees, who have little context or experience to rely on. Are they equipped to handle that? If someone calls in a threat to the company, does everyone know what they should do next and know who to tell?

Crisis Response Process Analysis or Creation

Once again, if you were not there to lead employees through this crisis, would they be able to make it through? Although we all want to be indispensable, you’ve done your job if the answer is yes. Be sure there is a process in place to create strategic and effective communications, using the above guidelines, regardless of the nature of the crisis.

Communication Maintenance Plan

Ok, so you’ve finally sent out that communication to your employees and your consumers or clients. What now? This maintenance plan establishes “swim lanes” for your employees and holds people accountable for their responsibilities during this time. This will help your teams avoid miscommunications in a time of anxiety and stress where mistakes are much more prevalent.

We strongly suggest inviting professionals into your world to establish these items, eliminating any biases or blind spots that may occur. Outside firms will provide an invaluable benefit – outside perspective. When most companies, NGOs or governments come to us for a consultation, we often find that there are adjustments that can be made that will have an incredibly strong impact which leadership may not have seen themselves. 

So What Now?

Don’t waste more time. Reach out to us, reach out to your friends with experience, or get to reading online – whatever is best for your company. Hopefully, these guidelines have offered you insight into the areas that need most work. 

As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, we’re in this together. Here at Main & Rose, we’re helping our fellow businesses by providing free crisis consultations and deeply discounted custom plans. Several other companies such as PWC, Bain & Co., McKinsey, and more are also offering a helping hand, providing a myriad of free resources to read. 

This time is quite unlike any other; businesses are leaning on each other to succeed, and (always keep in mind the silver lining, folks) in the midst of it all, we may all be able to find new partners that we can grow and learn with for the long-haul. 

Most importantly, stay safe and stay healthy.




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